What It Really Takes To Be An Architect
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BUILD's top 5 list of what separates the good architects from the mediocre ones.
It’s funny to think back to school and reflect on the principles that were taught to us as students; the values of what it would take to be a good architect out there in the world. The roster of traits included all of the usual suspects: creative thinking, being visually minded and having good drawing skills. Also emphasized was having an awareness of the physical world around you, having a decent knowledge of the history of architecture, and the ability to talk about design abstractly. Being hard-working and a willingness to put in long hours were also heavily touted.
And it’s not that these traits aren’t important — they are — but they’re sort of rudimentary. They’re not the things that separate the good architects from the mediocre ones. Decades into the profession now, with the benefit of experience and perspective, we’re able to look back and evaluate what it really takes to make it in architecture. Not surprisingly, it’s an entirely different list. What alarmed us most is that not only are these items downplayed in school, but some of the traits taught in school actually contradict these values. Here’s our Top 5 List:
More often than not, it can feel like the building department’s primary role is to turn you and your neatly rolled set of drawings away, issuing an endless list of bureaucratic forms, documents to be notarized and permit corrections. What gets a permit issued isn’t innovative architectural ideas, being a nice person, or working hard, as much as plain old perseverance. If the plan reviewer rejects an aspect of the design, come back with three more strategies to solve the problem. And three more after that. You have to make it clear that you’re not going away, that the path of least resistance is them issuing the permit. What gets things done is being a total pain in the ass.
Money on Your Mind
Whether it’s keeping the books in the black or simply managing a healthy balance of billable hours, cash is king. Most banks don’t accept beautiful architectural renderings as partial payment of the monthly office mortgage, nor do they care how imaginative you are as an architect. Having financial responsibility applies just as significantly to the projects on an architect’s desk. If the designs an architect produces are too far out of the client’s budget, they never get built. And if an architect’s projects never get built, they’re not really an architect, they’re a renderer.
Most architecture schools don’t teach anything about project finances — nothing whatsoever. At the same time, poor cost estimating skills are probably the number one reason that architecture projects die. In school, you’re practically encouraged to spend your last $75 on that Louis I. Khan monograph; the financial attitude in architecture school can often be more harmful than helpful.
Relating to the spectrum of society is perhaps the most important skill set an architect can possess; everything from chatting with the folks at the lumber yard, to coordinating with plan reviewers at the building department, to holding a conversation with potential clients at a well-heeled cocktail party. As an architect, keeping your social circles exclusive to other architects is professional suicide. There is value in knowing other architects, but it must be balanced out with people involved in other circles. In addition to broadening your conversation skills, it’ll likely make you a better architect and a better person in the end.
We’ll refrain from getting into the notoriously incestuous nature of architecture departments.
Enthusiasm for the Maze
More so than thinking up creative design ideas and sketching them out with broad swoopy strokes, architecture is about problem solving. A typical day of design more often involves working through the International Building Code, deciphering the Accessibility Code, aligning the design with a client’s goals, cross referencing with the specifications, balancing the design with the budget and constantly keeping the process in check with your design philosophy. It’s a maze of small puzzles to solve, one after the next. An architect needs to have an eagerness to figure out the puzzles and a passion to explore and find their way through the maze.
Passion for Organization
It’s not just about being organized, anyone can clean up their desk when they need to. This is about constantly looking for ways to better organize the world around you; this includes design, information, schedules and your relationships.
If you’ve got any adds to the list, let us know in the comments.
Cheers from Team BUILD